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‘It was a success before we stepped on the pitch’: How Ottawa’s Bingham Cup delivered for the gay and inclusive rugby community

First held in 2002, the Bingham Cup is now one of the biggest amateur rugby tournaments in the world. SportsPro flew to Ottawa for this year’s edition of the event to understand its significance in the LGBTQ+ community and to witness how the occasion was embraced by the Canadian capital.

6 September 2022 Sam Carp

Ottawa Tourism

Once every two years, the gay and inclusive rugby community gathers for its biennial world championships, better known as the Bingham Cup. For all players, supporters and staff it is an occasion eagerly blocked out on their social calendars well ahead of time, serving as a self-described celebration of equality, inclusivity and sportsmanship.

Organised by International Gay Rugby (IGR) and now among the largest amateur rugby union tournaments in the world, the event’s two-decade history has seen it pitch up in glamorous locations ranging from London and New York City to Sydney and Amsterdam. This year, the competition was held in Ottawa, which itself boasts a vibrant LGBTQ+ community and is also home to the Ottawa Wolves, one of the only gay and inclusive rugby clubs in Canada that lays claim to both a men’s and women’s side.

Just eight teams competed in the first Bingham Cup in 2002, but the tournament has since gone on to feature 148 sides from 83 clubs in 20 countries, with competitors travelling from far-flung locations such as New Zealand, the UK and France in order to rekindle old friendships and forge new ones. This year’s event saw 160 matches played between 18th and 21st August at Hornets Nest Soccer Park, which was transformed into a hub of activity kitted out with all the necessary amenities, including an athletes village and a beer tent that ensured the thirst of all those in attendance was suitably quenched.

Yet while the event has become a weekend-long festival of expression and entertainment, its origins are rooted in an act of heroism that ended in tragedy. The tournament is named after Mark Bingham, a rugby player who died during the 11th September terrorist attacks when he and a group of passengers attempted to wrestle back control of United Flight 93 from hijackers. The plane crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone onboard, but saving potentially thousands more lives by preventing the aircraft from reaching its intended target.

Bingham himself played for San Francisco Fog, the first gay and inclusive rugby club on America’s west coast, and helped to establish New York’s Gotham Knights. According to Amanda Mark, one of Bingham’s closest friends who travelled to Ottawa from Australia for this year’s tournament and is also putting her name to a women’s equivalent of the competition, he would have been “really thrilled” to see what the event has become and how it continues to challenge stereotypes around what it means to be gay.

“This would just blow him away,” says Mark, pointing to the games being watched by crowds of people. “Not only is it an awesome environment and rugby tournament, but it’s got good competition, the level of rugby has improved every year, it’s top notch. The fact that there’s events and there’s all these nations coming together, I mean, this would be his dream.”

It is certainly a fitting legacy, and while this might officially be referred to as an amateur tournament, the operation behind it is anything but. Ottawa had to go through a robust bidding process to secure the hosting rights to the event, one that Bingham Cup president Jean-Francois Laberge describes as being “almost like the Olympics”. In fact, he recalls leading a team to the Netherlands all the way back in the summer of 2018 to present the city’s bid to IGR, eventually seeing off competition from Argentina to bring the tournament to Canada for the first time.

The Ottawa Wolves were triumphant in the women’s Amanda Cup tournament

When Ottawa initially entered its bid, it expected to be hosting the Bingham Cup in 2020, only for the event to be pushed back two years because of Covid-19. Laberge points out that a hosting budget of almost CAD$1.2 million (US$913,000) was raised and spent in six months. The tournament’s board was comprised entirely of volunteers and there were around 500 volunteer shifts in total. All told, Laberge describes the hosting effort as “a huge endeavour”, but one that ultimately has been worth the “thousands of hours” spent by the organising committee putting the event together.

“We signed up for a two-year marathon, it’s been a four-year stop and go sprint, so we’re really happy to have it here,” says Laberge, speaking to SportsPro at pitchside as the sun beams down on a baking Saturday morning. “The Bingham Cup happens every two years, and on off years, the local IGR tournaments take place. So you have tournaments in Europe, Oceania, you have some over in North America – all of those were shut down [during Covid]. So it’s been three years since we’ve been able to come together as a community.”

The Bingham Cup might be a hub of acceptance and inclusivity but the same cannot always be said of sport at large, where casual homophobia remains an issue at both a grassroots and professional level. A 2020 study, written by Erik Denison and Alistair Kitchen and titled ‘Out on the Fields’, found that only one per cent of survey respondents believe LGB people are ‘completely accepted’ in sporting culture. In addition, 62 per cent of participants said that homophobia is more common in team sports than in other parts of society.

Speaking about his own experience, Laberge says that upon realising he was gay as a teenager he no longer felt team sports was an environment where he “could be or belong”. After a brief stint trying his hand at individual sports he attended his first practice at the Wolves, eventually going on to captain the team. He describes rugby as being “massive” in his life and says the sport has “made me a better man”.

We signed up for a two-year marathon, it’s been a four-year stop and go sprint, so we’re really happy to have it here.

Jean-Francois Laberge, President, Bingham Cup

There are similar stories to be found throughout the Bingham Cup field, where there is a sense of camaraderie strengthened not only by shared experiences, but also the various social activities that happen outside of the games. The feeling of inclusivity also translates onto the pitch, where there are teams of various skill levels competing for different titles within the overall competition. England’s London Kings Cross Steelers might have been crowned champions in the end, but there is a sense that this is one tournament where it really is the taking part that counts.

For Karim Pringle, who has played for the Wolves for 12 years and in 2022 was taking part in the Bingham Cup for the third time, having the event in the team’s hometown is both a “huge” and “overwhelming” experience. In addition to their alumni spearheading the efforts to bring the tournament to Ottawa, the Wolves were also heavily involved in fundraising efforts around the occasion and some of its players were even doubling as volunteers.

“We’re putting on a world-class tournament, so it’s already a success before we even stepped on the pitch,” Pringle says. “Everything’s multi-part. For me, it’s a great experience to be able to play and play as myself. My fiancé’s here and I don’t have to be afraid to show my love on the side of the field. Also, there are teenagers that are playing now who are able to be out, and I think it’s in large part because we’ve normalised it in sport.”

Over the course of the tournament, Laberge anticipates that the Bingham Cup will bring around CAD$8.5 million (US$6.5 million) in economic activity to Ottawa, with the event making full use of the suite of facilities and services that the city has to offer. With 1,724 participants in town, including 1,350 athletes, five hotel blocks were completely booked up and residences at the University of Ottawa were also used for accommodation. Competitors were granted a complimentary public transport pass for the week, allowing them to make use of the city’s metro system to travel to places like downtown, with a shuttle bus also on hand to ferry attendees between Blair light rail station and the playing field.

TD Bank served as the event’s platinum sponsor but Laberge says the Bingham Cup felt the support of Ottawa’s local business community, with a number of companies in the city coming onboard as partners of the tournament. The cameras of Rogers TV were also on hand to ensure that the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final could all be watched on a stream that was broadcast around the world.

There also would have been global attention on the University of Ottawa’s Fauteux Hall, which during Bingham Cup week hosted an international summit on transphobia and homophobia in sport, a pertinent subject at a time when organisations such as World Rugby and the International Rugby League (IRL) have introduced transgender guidelines that some within the LGBT community have criticised for being discriminatory.

The tournament’s opening ceremony, meanwhile, was held at the National Arts Centre, which is positioned alongside the renowned Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that runs through the heart of Ottawa and in the winter becomes the world’s largest skating rink, offering a popular route for commuters to ice skate to the office. Meanwhile, a closing party was staged by TD Place, whose 24,000-seater outdoor stadium and 10,000-capacity indoor arena are home to the city’s Ottawa Redblacks football team, as well as the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Canadian Premier League (CPL) soccer franchise Atlético Ottawa.

In any case, what was clear to see was that the entire Ottawa community mobilised to make the Bingham Cup a success.

“People are coming to our house, our home,” begins Robert Kawamoto, Ottawa Tourism’s assistant director for major events and sport. “We want to make sure that they’re comfortable, that we’re welcoming them, making them feel comfortable and giving them all the things that they need to enjoy themselves.

“Ultimately, the competition is one thing, they have a great time there, but they also have a fantastic stay and experience while they’re in Ottawa. Pulling all of that together is a monumental task, to get everyone on board.

“The city, for example, being able to set up a transportation system specifically for an event of this size. Making adjustments for some of the fields that we’re playing on and making sure it’s accessible to these different groups. And then you’ve got your hotels, you’ve got your restaurants, you’ve got all your other entertainment and shopping components that are waiting and ready to welcome and service all these groups that are in this city too.

“So that’s a very important element: the community being prepared, being communicated to and understanding what’s coming into the city.”

Ottawa’s Hunt and Golf Club staged the LPGA’s CP Women’s Open just days after the Bingham Cup

According to Kawamoto, the Bingham Cup was precisely the sort of event Ottawa is looking to bring to the city. Ottawa Tourism and the City of Ottawa are in the midst of delivering their ‘Bid more, win more, host more’ strategy, with Kawamoto describing the triple bottom line as “the measuring stick” the Canadian capital will use when trying to determine whether an event fits with its values as a destination.

In line with that thinking, the Bingham Cup serves a broader purpose for the LGBTQ+ community while also delivering meaningful economic activity to Ottawa. So too will other inclusive events that are due to be held in the city, such as the 2023 Masters Indigenous Games and the World Wheelchair Basketball Championships in 2026.

I think Ottawa is a very diverse and inclusive community, it always has been. And that comes from the base of the people that live here.

Robert Kawamoto, Assistant Director for Major Events and Sport, Ottawa Tourism

During SportsPro’s trip to the Bingham Cup there was also time to catch some of the action from Canada’s largest street hockey festival, called ‘Play On!’, which was contested on temporary rinks set up on Wellington Street, directly in front of Canada’s parliament building. As this correspondent was leaving the city, the world’s best female golfers were going to the other way, descending on the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club for the CP Women’s Open.

But this is now becoming the norm in Ottawa, which is fast establishing itself as an increasingly attractive destination for a diverse range of events.

“I think Ottawa is a very diverse and inclusive community, it always has been,” Kawamoto considers. “And that comes from the base of the people that live here. It’s a very Canadian thing to be welcoming, accepting, and wanting people to be able to live their lives in the way they would like to live their lives. I think those are very important elements that make [the city] attractive.

“Diversity and inclusion is a broad spectrum of different types of events. It’s women’s sport, it’s youth sports, it’s LGBTQ+ sport, it’s parasport. All different types of events that could be hosted here, with that ability to understand that certain groups need certain things.

“We’re willing to help out, to try to figure that out, and to try to make it work. I think that’s important.”

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